California is a state that millions of people around the world dream of visiting or living in, with good reason. From bustling modern cities and the center of the film industry to stunning natural wonders, California has something to offer everyone.
It’s almost impossible to narrow it down to a list of 16 best places, but we’ve hand-picked our favorite places and attractions that we think every itinerary should include. Read on to learn all you need to know!
The 16 Best Places to Visit in California
Every year, over 250 million tourists visit California. They come from all over the United States and the world, with their families, friends, spouses, or by themselves.
Some are return visitors, coming back year after year. It might take a lifetime to discover everything California has to offer. Glitzy, glamorous Los Angeles is the center of the film industry but also a hub of immigrant cultures.
Other cities such as San Francisco, Santa Monica, and San Diego have their own charms to offer, all with that particular relaxed California culture.
Of course, California is so much more than its bustling cities. Nature lovers can enjoy 840 miles of coastline and great nature, including the largest number of national parks of any state.
California is also rich in history, including time ruled by the Spanish and Mexicans and its own brief independence before joining the United States. California has so much to offer that planning a trip can be daunting. Our round-up shows you the highlights.
1. Yosemite National Park
Nature lovers everywhere dream of visiting Yosemite National Park, with good reason. One of California’s nine national parks, Yosemite is home to absolutely stunning landscapes and wildlife.
It was one of the United States’ first national parks, protected since 1864. First-time visitors to Yosemite National Park usually flock to Yosemite Valley.
This gorgeous glacial valley features stunning peaks and mountains, including the famous El Capitan, which draws free climbers from all over the world. Glacier Point is a good place to go if you want views of the valley below.
Take some time and get away from the main parts of the park. The vast national park has many trails through the Sierra Nevada mountains for all levels of hikers. Just be careful of the local wildlife — Yosemite is home to many species, including bears!
2. Los Angeles
When most people think of California, they immediately think of Los Angeles. Los Angeles might as well be a world to itself. The second-largest city in the United States has enough attractions to fill up a list of its own.
No visit to Los Angeles would be complete without a visit to Hollywood. Whether you’re a passionate movie buff or someone who is vaguely acquainted with blockbusters, you’ll enjoy seeing where some of your favorite flicks are made.
Take a tour of a studio, try to spot a celebrity, and take a photo by the famous Hollywood sign. That doesn’t mean that Los Angeles is all glitz and Hollywood glamour.
The city has a lot more to offer. Take in some culture at the world-famous J. Paul Getty Museum. When you get tired of the bustle of the city, take a break at Griffith Park, which has the famous Observatory and Zoo.
Read Next: Where to Stay in Los Angeles in 2023
3. San Francisco
San Francisco rivals Los Angeles for the title of California’s most famous city and best destination. No visit here is complete without a trip to the Golden Gate Bridge, whose stunning orange structure arches over the bay.
The San Francisco Bay is home to a lot of other landmarks, including the infamous Alcatraz prison. Go shopping and seal-watching around Pier 39.
The best part of San Francisco may not be any landmark but the city itself. Wander around the neighborhoods and take pictures of the pretty Victorian houses. Take in the famous alternative culture or the new tech drive.
Read Next: Is San Francisco Safe to Visit in 2023?
4. Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is not a trip for the faint of heart. This arid desert is home to the lowest point in the United States, Badwater Basin.
It is also a record-holder for the hottest air temperature ever measured, so don’t come in the summer. Death Valley boasts a lot more than these attractions. The park is home to gorgeous dunes, settlement ruins, and even mountains.
5. Lake Tahoe
The clear waters of Lake Tahoe are where Californians come to relax. This massive lake is located high in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the perfect place to get away from the heat and dust of much of California.
Visitors in search of glamour and creature comforts can go to Emerald Bay, home to many tourist attractions. If you prefer to travel off the beaten path, check out some of the many hiking trails nearby.
6. San Diego
San Diego has it all. This big city still has the atmosphere of a laid-back beach town, with plenty of places to work on your tan within city limits. Walk around and soak up the unique culture, which has a strong Spanish and Mexican influence.
San Diego is home to many important historical sites, such as an original Spanish mission from the 18th century and Old Town San Diego with authentic adobe buildings.
San Diego is also the perfect family destination. Kids will love the world-famous San Diego Zoo and other attractions.
7. Big Sur
If you want to get in touch with California’s wild side, then Big Sur is one of the best places to go. This rugged stretch of coast along central California lies between Carmel-by-the-Sea and San Simeon.
Big Sur is where the Santa Lucia Mountains rush to meet the sea, creating stunning cliffs and scenery. There are a few ways to explore this area.
You can drive along, stopping to take photos. You can hike some of the many trails leading away from the road. Finally, you can explore the hidden beaches and coves along the way, featuring perfect surfing conditions
Read Next: Where to Stay When You Visit Big Sur
8. Sequoia National Park
Sequoia National Park is home to some of California’s most famous gentle giants. Giant sequoia trees only grow along this slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains. They can be up to 300 feet tall, and their trunks are wide enough to create car tunnels.
Everything is bigger in Sequoia National Park as this park is also home to Mount Whitney, the continental United States’ highest mountain. Bring your hiking shoes and get ready to explore beautiful nature.
9. Monterey and Nearby Towns
Another gem in central California, Monterey is a former industrial town located on Monterey Bay. Today, it is a picturesque tourist destination with plenty of charming seafood shacks, shops, and attractions such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
The entire region around Monterey is worth a visit, especially since it is less touristy than other parts of California. Check out the artsy village of Carmel-by-the-Sea or the relaxed beach town of Santa Cruz.
10. Napa Valley
Wine lovers probably don’t need any introduction for Napa Valley. This gorgeous region in northern California, near Sonoma, is home to some of the country’s best wineries. Go for a sophisticated getaway with plenty of wine tastings.
Even if you don’t like wine, Napa Valley is a great destination. Check out the beautiful nature and historic Spanish towns of Sonoma or go on a hot air balloon trip.
11. Santa Monica
Santa Monica is maybe the most quintessential California beach town. Located close to Los Angeles, it makes a great day trip from the larger city, but there is enough to see that it’s worth dedicating more time to it.
The main attraction is the Santa Monica pier. Visit the amusement park, including the Ferris wheel, check out the beach shacks, and fish off the pier.
Disneyland in Anaheim, close to Los Angeles, is the perfect California destination for kids and kids at heart. The vast park has something for everyone. Thrill-seekers will get a kick out of rides such as California Screamin’.
Even if roller coasters aren’t your thing, Disneyland is worth a visit to check out the world the House of Mouse built. With character parades, famous food, and themed shops, Disneyland is fun for everyone.
13. Joshua Tree National Park
The inspiration behind a famous U2 album, Joshua Tree National Park is one of the best places to see California’s desert landscapes. You can go hiking in the desert and stay overnight to take in the stars.
The biggest attractions in the park are the famous, twisted Joshua trees and the many rock formations that attract climbers. Make sure you bring your hiking shoes and plenty of water.
14. Palm Springs
Palm Springs is one of the most glamorous towns in already-glamorous California. Since the 1920s, Hollywood stars and California’s most powerful people have come to vacation here, especially in the winter.
This warm desert town has balmy weather year-round. Enjoy the many museums and sophisticated restaurants in town, visit nearby Coachella, or just relax by the pool and imagine you are a movie studio darling.
15. Pacific Coast Highway
With so many destinations and dramatic landscapes in California, you might be wondering how you’ll see them all. A road trip is the best way to see it all, and all California road trips have to pass through the Pacific Coast Highway.
The Pacific Coast Highway hugs the California coast, yielding stunning vistas at every turn. It also connects many destinations on this list, such as San Francisco and Big Sur.
16. Redwood National Park
Redwood National Park on the northern California coast is home to landscapes that feel otherworldly. Redwoods are the tallest trees on Earth, and every nature lover wants to walk among these amazing giants.
The national park also has a lot of other beautiful nature to offer. Check out Fern Canyon, a filming location for Jurassic Park: The Lost World. If you’re lucky, you might see some of the many animal species that call the park home, including elk, seals, and even whales.
Things to Consider
Here are some things to consider when planning your trip to California. First, unless you have several months of infinite free time, remember that you will not see everything in California. This vast state has enough to take a lifetime to see!
Pick out a few destinations that you want to prioritize and take it slow to really take in what you want to see. Second, the weather in California can be extreme, especially in the summer.
Avoid hotter destinations then, such as Death Valley, and bring plenty of water. That said, it’s a mistake to assume all of California is hot and northern California, including San Francisco, is cool all year round!
Dress in layers when you visit. Finally, if you can, rent a car while you’re there as a road trip is the best way to see California.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some of the most common questions other visitors to California have asked:
What is the prettiest place in California?
It’s hard to decide where the prettiest place is in California when there are so many beautiful landscapes in the state. Most people say Lake Tahoe with its Alpine beauty is the prettiest, while others point to the wild coast of Big Sur.
What is the number one tourist attraction in California?
According to visitor numbers, Disneyland in Anaheim is probably the top tourist attraction in California, although Disney doesn’t always release full visitor statistics. Los Angeles is the most-visited city and the number one tourist attraction according to many.
What part of California is best for vacation?
The answer depends on what you want out of your vacation. Most people head to the southern California coast with its sandy beaches and towns such as Santa Monica and Santa Barbara for vacations.
Are five days enough for California?
Five days are enough to visit California if you resign yourself to the fact that you’re only going to see a few things. That is enough to check out a few major cities, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. However, to get to know California better, you need at least 10–14 days.
What is the best time to visit California?
The best time to visit California is in the spring, around April and May, or in early fall. That way, you get to enjoy the famous California weather and even go to the beach, but you avoid the crowds and the worst of the heat waves.
So What Is the Best Place to Visit in California?
There’s so much to see in California that it’s hard to decide what’s the best place to visit. Nature lovers should make a beeline for the national parks such as Yosemite.
Kids will love Disneyland and San Diego. Finally, no visit is complete without a trip to San Francisco and Los Angeles. So what are you waiting for — book your trip to California today!